There is a ribbon of timeless beauty and sadness threaded into the melodies and words of Stephen Stills. Very much the American cousin to '60s folk rock innovators like Bert Jansch and Roy Harper, Stills embodies the surge towards modernity that marked that tumultuous decade but with the streaming reverberations of crossroads, field hollers, madrigals and other bardic antiques. He holds up an unclouded mirror to himself and in doing so offers us a shiveringly honest assessment of what it means to be human. It's a safe bet that many people have found insight and solace within his measures, and we're delighted to raise a glass in salute to his natal day.
A curious mix of prickly and approachable, Stills temperament lives in his music. His songs are often marked by the sharpness that emerges when one acknowledges their longing for things that may never be in reach (or more cruelly, were once firmly in hand but have since flown away). Dreams longed for, dreams briefly held, dreams abandoned - these are the subterranean stuff of the man who could have rested on his laurels from the late '60s on but never really has. For most, being a founding member of seminal groups like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash would have been enough but Stills has kept some of the restless spark of his stunning early endeavors. Less pretty than Graham and less attention grabbing than Ben Franklin look-alike Crosby, Stills is the one with an acoustic guitar in his hand on the cover of CSN's blazingly original 1969 debut, a look that could mean myriad things on his face as the three new brothers lounge on an outdoor sofa. Soon stadiums and endless bed swapping would follow, but right there in that one image lays Stills' core truth - a blue jean boy ready to pick you a tune that will crack open your heart and mind.
We begin our birthday salute to Stephen with a grainy but lovely solo reading of 4 + 20" captured right after Woodstock in 1969
Speaking of that famous mud pit gathering, here's Crosby, Stills & Nash performing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" at Woodstock. Most songwriters would be lucky to write one such masterpiece in a lifetime. Stills has hit this sort of nail many, many times before and since.
Though less familiar to most than his CSN work, Stills' Manassas made some bloody fantastic music including this super heavy thumper. Watch Stills and see the living embodiment of the phrase putting your back into it." We're pretty sure that guitar needed to smoke a cigarette after this one.
Let's stick with the same Manassas session for It Doesn't Matter," which gives early Steely Dan a run for their money in the creamy, bittersweet rock stakes.
As amazing as The Beatles' original recordings of Blackbird" may be, the CSN arrangement simply owns. This live take from 1983 makes their case pretty darn well.
Jump ahead to 1990 and Helplessly Hoping" from the group's MTV Unplugged episode.
When the man plugs in he is, simply put, a freakin' monster. Stills plays with concise eloquence on this 1977 version of Long Time Gone."
Is it just us or did For What It's Worth" suddenly seem eerily relevant again in the past year or so? Here's the Springfield at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival introduced by a Monkee.
We stay with Buffalo Springfield and Rock 'n' Roll Woman" from a 1967 TV special called Popendipity hosted by Flip Wilson.
We blow out the last birthday candle with a performance of Johnny's Garden" last year on Jools Holland's BBC show. Weathered, weary, still seeking peace amidst the city chaos - Yeah, that's our dear Stephen Stills. Glad we get to share air with you, man.
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